Last summer, as most Stanford students were preparing to move back to campus for the first time in over a year, one student, Ethan Lee ’23, was preparing to fly to Spain — he had been cast in “Asteroid City,” the latest film by director Wes Anderson, and was about to spend the next few months shooting the movie.
Lee began acting in kindergarten, when he started joining school theater productions to help with a speech impediment, but it was not until he was nine years old that he began going to auditions and pursuing on-camera acting professionally, mainly working on TV and some film. Initially, Lee was unsure if he wanted to pursue acting professionally due to the large time commitment it requires and his academic priorities.
“My parents were initially hesitant. When I was younger, the rule was always school first, acting second,” Lee said. “It was such a big time commitment as well — you’re getting out of school, driving to LA, auditioning, getting back at around 7 or 8 p.m. — and then you’ve got homework and extracurriculars. But there’s some cathartic experience [in acting] that you can’t replicate anywhere else, so I kept on going back.”
Lee’s first professional acting role was on the show “Southland.” It was also his first-ever audition. Lee has since appeared in many TV shows including “Glee,” “Desperate Housewives,” “The Middle,” “KC Undercover” and “The Mick.” He also played a recurring character on “Mr. Robinson,” a short-lived NBC sitcom.
Each of Lee’s roles has taught a unique lesson to the actor. “I enjoyed working on a series and seeing different character arcs,” Lee said of “Mr. Robinson.” “It taught me how to pace myself when filming, because filming is exciting and a lot of fun, but it’s easy to spend all of your energy really quickly or get carried away with craft services. You can’t do that if you’re trying to do a long-term thing. You have to pace yourself.” From his brief appearance on “Glee,” Lee says, “I learned the value of being spontaneous — my part in Glee was improvised and that’s something I’d never experienced before.”
“Asteroid City” is the biggest project he has booked to date. Aside from its title, very little is currently known about “Asteroid City” — all elements of the plot are being kept completely under wraps. According to Wikipedia, the film is an “American romantic comedy-drama”, and a Deadline article lists a plethora of A-list actors who have been linked to the project, including Tom Hanks, Margot Robbie, Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton, Sophia Lillis, Adrien Brody, Maya Hawke, Fisher Stevens and many more.
Given the confidential nature of the project, Lee is not able to reveal too much, avoiding any specific descriptors of what he was asked to do on set.
“I had a great time working with Wes and the cast and crew,” Lee said.
“Asteroid City” was filmed in Chinchón, a town in Spain around forty minutes south of Madrid. An article in The New York Times claims that Anderson’s “cast and crew often take up a local hotel, and dine together, too.” Anderson himself has stated that he likes to “go to a place and have us all live there and become a real local sort of production, like a little theater company.” In “Asteroid City,” the close living quarters helped create a closer community on set, according to Lee.
“It was a very communal atmosphere,” Lee said. “As are many Wes projects, from what I’ve heard.”
Production on “Asteroid City” wrapped in October. Lee arrived on campus a few weeks late for fall quarter, but was able to coordinate with his professors to make up for any in-person classes he’d missed. A few of his classes were online, so he was able to participate remotely. Nevertheless, he said that balancing academics and acting for a few weeks proved to be a little more difficult than he expected. He is currently pursuing a major in political science and a minor in history.
While at school, Lee’s first priority is his academics, though he still continues to audition for film projects. William Golub ’23, a friend of Lee’s from his freshman dorm, spoke to Lee’s ability to pursue various interests at once.
“We’ve had discussions on things like the economics of film production and the consolidation of producers, as well as the intersection of media and international relations,” Golub said. “Ethan’s the kind of guy who brings people together in an awesome way, so it makes sense that he is part of so many communities in and outside of Stanford.”
“In acting, he’s phenomenally talented,” said Donya Sarrafian ’23, one of Lee’s housemates from last spring. “I got to watch some of his highlight reels and was very impressed by them. I talked to him after “Asteroid City,” and he was incredibly excited to be doing that work. I’m incredibly excited to see the movie in 2023.”
Working on “Asteroid City” has made Lee confident that he wants to continue to pursue acting after college. “I have other interests outside of performing arts and film and media, but there’s nothing that compares to the artistic catharsis and fulfillment,” Lee said. “You can’t get that with any other career.”